For Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, families share stories of loss, healing and helping
photo by: Contributed Photo
Note: September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Anyone struggling with thoughts of suicide should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or Headquarters Counseling Center at 785-841-2345. You can also get connected to the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.
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Jordan Ott came into his dad’s bedroom. It was 3 in the morning.
“Mom keeps calling,” Jordan told his dad, Elwood. “She’s crying.”
When Elwood called his ex-wife, she told him the news. Their son, Isaiah, had killed himself. He was 16.
That was June 6, eight years ago. Younger brother Jordan was 11 at the time. He’s 19 now.
“The day itself is always kind of a roller coaster of emotions, that it’s another year,” Elwood said. “As much as it makes me upset or sad, I still look back on those times with him and it makes me smile.”
Isaiah would have celebrated his 25th birthday on Aug. 25.
“I was told that loved ones live on in our hearts and are always around. I believe it,” Elwood said in a Facebook post he wrote on Isaiah’s birthday. “This healing journey hasn’t been easy, yet doing the work has been worth it.”
For Elwood, the healing journey is an ongoing process.
“Honestly, I didn’t do it the healthiest way early on; I just buried my feelings, stayed busy and wouldn’t allow myself to process it. It eventually weighed me down and took its toll on me,” Elwood said. “Counseling has helped. Journaling has helped. Exercise has helped. Reaching out to people has helped. Also, reflecting on and embracing the good times. That’s what has helped me survive.”
The loss of his brother motivated Jordan to reach out to others who may be hurting. Jordan organized a fundraiser walk in March 2019 in memory of his brother to raise awareness about suicide. Jordan was a junior in high school at the time. About 300 people attended the event at the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence Teen Center. Organizations like Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ were part of the event. Jordan is a group leader at the Boys & Girls Club Teen Center; Elwood works for the Boys & Girls Club of America.
“The event was just a way to carry on his name and to give back to my community,” Jordan said. “After losing my brother, I just wanted to let people know they are not alone. You never know what somebody might be going through. It’s OK to feel how you feel. Life can be hard, but there is always help. Don’t be afraid to ask for it.”
‘The more I talk about it, the more therapeutic it is’
The annual Douglas County Fair was always an important time for Hayleigh Wempe, a member of the Palmyra 4-H Club, who used to show her sheep during the livestock competition at the fair.
This year was different. Speaking to a group of 4-H’ers, Amy Wempe Douglass, Hayleigh’s mom, shared a message her cousin Holly Swearingen, a behavioral health specialist at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, helped write:
“HQ (Hayleigh Quinn) had been struggling with depression and lost the fight to suicidal thoughts. There is a misconception that if we talk about depression and suicide, we are pushing those thoughts and actions into their head. That is not true. The more we talk to each other and our kids about those sad or scary thoughts, the more help they can get to work through those inaccurate thoughts and win the battle. Everyone at some point in time has had a dark or depressed thought. Luckily most can fight it and know that the thoughts are inaccurate. However, not everyone, especially kids, are able to process what is going on in their mind. That’s why I strongly urge you to talk to your kids and each other about the sad things we think so they realize no one is alone.”
Hayleigh died by suicide on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021. She was 15, a freshman at Baldwin High School and a member of the wrestling, volleyball and softball teams.
“I wanted people to know what happened,” said Amy, who is a nurse. “I always said I was never ashamed of Hayleigh in life, and I was not going to be ashamed of the way she died.”
photo by: Contributed Photo
Amy said Hayleigh had engaged in self-harm behaviors before and had been seeing a therapist. Amy used to have frank conversations with Hayleigh about her mental health.
“Suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems. I don’t know where I heard that, but I remember telling Hayleigh that very thing,” Amy said. “I wanted to try and normalize mental health for her. I told her there was no shame in talking about it.”
Amy has been upfront when talking with Hayleigh’s friends.
“I found out after the fact that on social media Hayleigh had made some veiled threats about hurting herself,” Amy said. “The night she took her life she made suicidal threats. None of her friends told anybody. I know there was a lot of guilt. I told them, this was a decision that Hayleigh made, and nobody but Hayleigh made, but she made it on wholly false information, just untruths about herself. It was important for those kids to understand it had nothing to do with them.”
Amy said talking about her daughter’s death is helpful with her own healing process. She also hopes it will bring mental health out in the open and help others who may be struggling.
“The more I talk about it, the more therapeutic it is for me,” Amy said. “I also think it’s important for her friends to see where her head was. She made this decision based on things they know were patently untrue. If we can stop anybody else from making this same choice, being open and talking about Hayleigh’s story will be worth it.”
Suicide prevention resources
For help, these resources are available 24/7:
• The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — 800-273-8255
• Headquarters Counseling Center — 785-841-2345
• Crisis Text Line — Text HOME to 741741
• myStrength is a 24/7 online emotional support tool. To sign up for myStrength, visit mystrength.com and use the access code “Douglas County.”
• Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center — 785-843-9192
Mental Health First Aid
Mental Health First Aid is a course designed to help people from all backgrounds learn about the signs and symptoms of various mental health challenges and crises. One important component of Mental Health First Aid is learning about the warning signs of suicide and how to ask the critical question, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” so that a person might actively engage with someone to prevent an attempt. Mental Health First Aid helps people develop their empathy skills and increases our abilities to connect with our friends and family members who are struggling. Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center is now offering MHFA virtually — a current class listing is available online at bertnash.org/mental-health-first-aid-program.
— Jeff Burkhead is communications director at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.